The Odds WikiCU Defied

Published on November 14, 2016

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group of undergraduate students huddle together in John Jay Lounge, surrounded by a steady supply of coffee, cookies, and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. April 24, 2013: the eve of finals season, but the lure of a study break has drawn people out of their Butler bunkers (as free food is wont to do). Unlike the rest, however, this is a study break with a purpose. Everyone’s laptop screens are switched to a single page: WikiCU.com, where history is being written—literally.

This is the inaugural iteration of the “Wikithon,” an annual gathering to resuscitate the student-run wiki and update it with new information. Over the course of two to three hours, people trickle in, piling their plates high with steaming food sponsored by Columbia College Student Council. They pull up chairs and sit in loose groups of two, three, four people, with strangers and friends alike. “I’m creating a page on Froscanity,” someone calls. “Yeah, I’ll work with you on that!” comes the reply from across the room.

Members of CCSC stroll through the small crowd of attendees, helping out with administrative permissions to the site, providing article suggestions, and even collaborating on some of the edits. Throughout the night, they wander over to the lounge’s heavy double doors—cast wide open—and call out to the first-years peering in curiously, encouraging them to contribute an edit or two, as they straggle back to their dorm rooms.

In that single evening, more than 80 articles were created, and more than 750 edits were made.

For Jared Odessky, then the CCSC vice president for communications, this was an important step forward in resuscitating the student wiki, which was created in 2006 but had since fallen into disuse. This would be the first of four annual Wikithons thus far.

Odessky, a member of the Columbia College class of 2015, spearheaded the event as co-organizer. While many attendees were from campus media organizations like the the Blue and White, Spectator, Bwog, and The Lion, CCSC was better equipped to publicize and host the event. “That was just a meeting of the minds, where we said, ‘Hey, a lot of people on campus have knowledge in really niche areas,’” he explains, painting Wikithons as events that could truly harness the various areas of expertise of the student body in contributing to WikiCU.

“The air in the room was productive, in a way that sometimes Butler doesn’t feel productive. People were excited, people were collaborating,” Odessky recalls proudly. And for good reason: The Wikithons, in many ways, epitomize WikiCU. It was—and remains—the only initiative by students to create and maintain a repository of institutional memory: an unfiltered, multifaceted account of the “Columbia experience” from within.

An insider’s guide

Giving students the chance to voice the Columbia experience is a mantle of which the site, which describes itself as “an insider’s guide to Columbia University,” is more than aware. Over the years, articles have detailed campus myths like the tunnels, lamented the closure of popular neighborhood haunts, and gently poked fun at the Literature Humanities reading list with witty one-liner summaries that are often a little too on-the-nose. (Dante’s Inferno is eloquently condensed to: “Which circle of hell will your i-banker and lawyer parents go to?”)

But despite this comprehensive compendium of resources and articles, none of it can be definitely attributed to any one student. Like on Wikipedia, anyone can edit WikiCU articles, operating under an anonymous alias like “Pacman” and “Absentminded.” As it currently stands, the site has a whopping 1,462 user accounts; though the number of total contributors is even higher, as during Wikithons most attendees all log on to the same account to make edits.

Daniel Stone, a member of the Columbia class of 2016 and somebody who contributed to WikiCU during his time at Columbia, sees the site as “students giving voice to the way they understand the universe of Columbia. Columbia is its own … world, it’s sort of an ancient city-state.”

If Columbia is a city-state, then WikiCU is a veritable institution of its own within that. It evinces a spontaneous, quirky culture with exclusive internal honors (the PrezBo Award is bestowed upon students who offer “meritorious service and extraordinary contributions to WikiCU”), deadpan humor (“Low Memorial Library, despite its name, is neither low nor a library.”) and perplexingly obsessive precision (see: the detailed listing of every building along 117th Street).

What has compelled over 1,000 students to carve time out of their Ivy League schedules to add to a site now so fundamental to the University’s institutional memory? The prospect is improbable, even incredible, and yet, the result speaks for itself: WikiCU, even compared to other universities’ wikis, is unparalleled in its thorough coverage of campus history and culture. As of now, there are 4,041 article pages—hardly a number to turn your nose up at.

Yet over the years, it has transformed from “required reading” to a site that few use in their four years here.

Early years

The details of the site’s creation are, to this day, something of a mystery: a random improbability dreamed up, perhaps, between midterm papers and Contemporary Civilization readings. Most administrators and founders, like most of its contributors, remain anonymous. Even the other regular contributors I speak to say they were unaware of the founders’ actual identities.

What we do know is that the site first appeared 10 years ago, initially as a repository of to-do guides for students. After approximately a year, its preceding domain, CUWiki.com, expired, and was finally exchanged for WikiCU.com. It opened its digital doors to the public on March 6, 2007. The very first article—and the only one created during the first three days of its inception—is a pithy one-liner explaining the science requirement: “The widely-reviled Frontiers of Science, plus another two science courses.”

And although its origins are equal parts perplexing and murky, much can be traced back to a history classroom at Barnard in the spring semester of 2007. Many of the site’s early editors were students of professor Robert McCaughey’s class, A Social History of Columbia University. For their final paper, McCaughey prompted students to conduct research into some aspect of Columbia’s history. Many of these projects would later be uploaded onto WikiCU, forming a firm foundation for the nascent site’s initial body of content.

“The original group of editors were real powerhouses.”

—Sam Aarons, School of Engineering and Applied Science graduate of 2014

Building the site from the ground up was a gruelling, time-consuming process. Much of the digital research techniques we now take for granted were not always available in 2007; writing and contributing wiki articles from the comfort of your Schapiro Hall dorm room was hardly an option. There were few digitized archives, recalls early contributor Raza Panjwani, who graduated Columbia College in 2007—one of the rare few whose identity is known. Along with fellow WikiCU editors, Panjwani had to rely on a limited selection of articles online.

I first hear about Panjwani when another contributor with whom I speak mentions him as someone involved with WikiCU in its early years. When I speak to Panjwani over the phone, he seems open, friendly, and eager to share his memories. Despite not knowing fellow founders, he was part of McCaughey’s class as well and would become a regular name on the edits history of many a WikiCU page. For him, contributing the products of his thorough knowledge and extensive research was borne partly out of a desire to pass along what he was learning about Columbia to other students.

“I always felt like there was a lot of knowledge that got passed on person to person that’s often not written down somewhere,” he explains. “It was all very, like, ‘What would be useful information for students to have easy access to?’ and kind of, ‘What have I learned in the last four years?’” Indeed, this meticulous recording of tips and advice went a long way toward reinforcing the function of WikiCU as a repository of institutional memory.

But much of what drove him seems to be a genuine love for the work he was doing.

In fact, much of what we now see on WikiCU began as passion projects that required hours of good old-fashioned research. Panjwani, who was a senior when the site was created and who subsequently attended Columbia Law School, tells me how his leisure time was spent going through resources on topics he felt were relevant enough to include. “I went to the Columbia archives, and they have a subjects file, so I pulled that up and I looked through the newspaper clippings and wrote up what I could figure out,” he says.

Similarly, Stone relates hearsay accounts of early contributors spending up to eight hours combing through microfilms in archives before the information was fully digitized. In many ways, the methods these students pursued reveal an intense precision and resourcefulness any journalist would be more than proud.

Panjwani fondly recalls how, in the search for firsthand sources, he managed to wrangle a conversation with Sandy Kaufman, a Brooklyn-based artist and previous member of Columbia’s Office of University Publications. Knowing the chances were slim, Panjwani contacted him, asking if he might just be willing to give his two cents’ worth on how the iconic Columbia blue came about. “And he said, Yeah, sure! Give me a call!” Panjwani laughs.

Panjwani is referring to the background research he did for a set of articles on Columbia’s symbols — the crown, shield, and lion. This is one of his many areas of interest on a wide-ranging list including old school campuses, Columbia-owned property, and University statutes.

Visit some of those pages today, and it seems implausible that Columbia students, as busy and stressed as we are, would have invested this much time and effort beyond the classroom to lay down the foundations of an approximately 4,000 article-strong database.

An offhand remark Panjwani makes strikes me as incredibly apt. He calls WikiCU “a form of procrastination in the grand Columbia tradition.” He tells me that just before the New York State bar exam, he and a friend spent an entire night spontaneously researching the “Columbia Oval.” In a few hours, they created a fully fledged article with sources drawn from Google Books and Spectator archives. “So that was how, sort of, these articles come about—as purely procrastination,” he claims. And then, with a touch of amusement, he reassures me, “We both passed the bar exam!”

The second wave

Yet a lesser-known fact is that within a year or two of its founding, maintaining the site became a substantial problem.

The site’s founder, known under the alias Reaganaut, who was hosting the website on a personal server, created a “Future of WikiCU” page in April 2007 that posed a pressing question: “OK, guys, help. I graduate in May. How do we take WikiCU forward?”

Suddenly, the independence the website wore like a badge of honor—the fact that it was entirely student-run—became a problem. As the initial editors’ graduation rapidly approached, it became evident that even if a new batch of hand-picked successors were to be found, the site was bound to the expiry date of a four-year undergraduate degree.

Consistent contributors weighed in, suggesting everything from adopting a CULPA-style structure—passing on to the next batch of volunteer editors—to handing it over to other established campus news sites like Bwog or Spectator. Some warned that such changes would disrupt the site’s autonomy. “The beauty of this website remains its independence and I would be extremely cautious before turning it over to anyone with a potential bias,” claimed a user under the moniker Adolph Lewisohn.

“When I was a student, it was required reading before coming in as freshmen.”

—Daniel Stone, Columbia College graduate of 2016

One thing was certain: Having it remain an entirely voluntary, student-driven process was a must. But as its original editors graduated, this imperative became crippling: Only two of the site’s 15 administrator accounts were created after 2010, perhaps reflecting the lack of leadership and manpower behind the project. The ownership issue was never truly resolved until several years later, during which time the site went stale, with only the occasional update or two.

When it comes down to it, the second wave of WikiCU contributors, who enrolled at Columbia only after WikiCU’s first editors had graduated, are, first and foremost, readers and users of the site, like I was. Sean Augustine-Obi, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 and is a former columnist for Spectator, explains that he first discovered it before his first year started, later deciding to contribute as a way of passing this knowledge along. To date, he estimates that he has made up to 400 edits on the site.

Like Augustine-Obi, Stone first encountered the platform before enrolling. He found it an ideal way of discovering more about how Columbia works, consolidating what he calls “basic facts that structure the University” in one convenient, accessible site.

“When I was a student, it was your required reading before coming in as freshmen. You’d go to WikiCU and read as much as possible. And I think it helped people orient themselves at university,” Stone says.

I first encountered the site a few months before stepping onto the Morningside Heights campus. Besides coming across it when Googling for advice on first-year housing—a terrifying process—I also distinctly remember looking up the article on the New York Mets in an attempt to acquaint myself with what I, as a relatively ignorant prefrosh, assumed to be a pillar of New York culture. “Mets fans tend to be simultaneously optimistic, fatalistic, and perpetually anguished. In other words,” it told me, “they tend to be like Columbia students.”

WikiCU’s practical tidbits became the bedrock for countless students’ formative months here at Columbia, dispensing information about everything from housing selection to generic advice for prefrosh. “Being on the class of 2015 Facebook group before coming to school, people posted articles or referenced things from WikiCU,” Odessky explains. As a first-year, he relied on pages detailing Carman, John Jay, the Living Learning Center, and other residence halls to make his decision.

The site found itself back under the control of a current student purely by accident. In the spring of 2012, then-School of Engineering and Applied Science sophomore Sam Aarons, a user himself, contacted the WikiCU admins in an attempt to fix the site’s malware problems. “I also wanted to see if I could take a stab at improving it and maybe help cut down on the spam problem,” he explains over an email interview.

Aarons had never intended to take over WikiCU control, but much to his surprise, the previous owner sent him all the necessary information for porting it over to new servers, “and the rest was history.”

But what the erstwhile webmaster inherited was more than a jumble of near-defunct pages—it was a treasure trove of institutional memory. Speaking to Aarons and several other later contributors, I get the sense that the early editors are nearly revered for creating such a rich repository. “It’s hard to build something, it’s easier to just contribute to it … so I’m eternally grateful to people who first started it up,” Odessky says.

Aarons expresses similar sentiments: “The original group of editors were real powerhouses.”

Even though Aarons gained administrative control in 2012, without the dedicated contributions of this core group, the site remained fairly stagnant until the first Wikithon one year later.

Odessky, who had just been appointed CCSC’s VP for communications, had recognized the incredible potential of this open-source platform. He was interested in creating a resource guide for all things Columbia, but, as he himself says, “did not want to reinvent the wheel. We knew WikiCU already existed as a platform built up from the grassroots.”

Enter the annual Wikithons.

Calling all archivists

Stone tells me that each Wikithon is different. Some have a more serious atmosphere, while others are more lighthearted. At Wikithon 2015, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que was swapped out for Malaysia Grill, and the new Facebook event banner bore the words: “Cosponsored by Columbia Spectator and the Blue and White.” In spirit, however, it was very much the same event as in previous years, in part because of the kind of people who attended.

Abby Porter, a senior in Columbia College, who at the time was the VP for communications of CCSC, reached out directly to people involved with campus media with an email that read: “Because you all are so invested in Columbia’s campus, I encourage you to come and write an entry about something that you know a lot about, or something in which you are interested.”

Augustine-Obi, who participated in the first Wikithon in 2013 and would later step up to organize subsequent ones, is the embodiment of the typical Wikithon participant. During his four years here, he was involved in almost every campus media organization, working for both the Blue and White and The Lion as well as contributing op-eds and columns to Spectator. His participation in the revitalization of WikiCU was almost inevitable.

In the same vein, Stone was the Blue and White’s managing editor in fall 2014 and its editor-in-chief in spring 2015. Conor Skelding, a graduate from Columbia College’s class of 2014 and the other half of the team that helmed Wikithon 2013, was also an editor-in-chief of Blue and White and wrote for Bwog.

Yet CCSC’s publicity push incentivized the student population beyond this narrow journalistic demographic—and it wasn’t just the free food that did the trick.

It was WikiCU itself: The site is a platform for a plethora of student groups and individuals to involve themselves—not just in recording the campus scandals and traditions du jour, but in creating pages about key figures on campus and even editing information on their student groups. The 2015 Facebook event blurb casts a wide net: “Whether it be your favorite Columbia alum, your favorite student group on campus, or even yourself, come out on Monday to help record Columbia’s history.”

Augustine-Obi notes the sheer diversity of its attendees ensured a good mixture of perspectives, from experienced seniors heavily involved in student organizations to first-years who were able to bring a fresh eye to campus events.

Indeed, reflecting the disparate mix of contributors, the selection of topics covered were largely arbitrary as well. The CCSC Communications Committee came together before the Wikithon to identify major gaps in the site’s content and produced a set of broad categories which served as a starting point for students brainstorming article ideas. (To date, iterations of these lists can still be found on WikiCU.)

That said, the events remained free form, Odessky stresses, in the spirit of Wikipedia-style open sourcing. “We had a list of suggestions, but said that people can go in any directions they wanted, and that’s the value of the platform—that you can literally write any piece of Columbia that you wanted to,” he says.

Wikithons gave rise to articles such as Nutellagate (2013) and Emma Sulkowicz (2015), and would become a year-by-year record of hot topics and inside jokes that preoccupied previous generations of Columbians. It lent credibility to popular student-created traditions like the King’s Quest and 40s on 40.

Each article written is, undoubtedly, a labor of love, carrying the unique experience of its creator. Everyone fondly references personal favorite articles, with the pages written about other universities mentioned more than once. “The one about Harvard always makes me laugh,” Aarons says.

Out of curiosity, I spend an inordinate amount of time trawling through this sampling of founders’ favorites. Some are downright disparaging: The Harvard entry is, indeed, a classic, describing the university as “a repository for those unfortunate enough not to have been given the thumbs-up by Columbia College’s enlightened admissions office,” and proceeding to dismiss the fellow Ivy League member’s Radcliffe College as “once Harvard’s Barnard College. It was forced to completely dissolve in the 1990s, when Harvard decided it hated the idea of women doing anything independently.” Princeton’s opens with, “Princeton University is the Anti-Columbia. Think of it as the Ivy League Anti-Christ.”

These excerpts exemplify the site’s signature tone: a combination of incisive snark and insightful curiosity. When putting old and new articles side by side, it is almost as if the five-year lull never occurred. Newer entries continue to espouse the unique brand of Columbia wit and historical mastery par excellence. Each article oozes an attitude that, improbably, stays fairly consistent across the vast database, despite its numerous individual contributors to date.

And in true Columbia form, underneath its acerbic commentary, the information is also meticulously well-researched, with certain articles boasting over 50 citations. “It attests to the fact that students can be both really sharp and thoughtful,” Stone says.

So, with some effort, the site gradually took off again. The open-source Wikithons carried on, much in the same vein of the collective student effort initial editors had hoped for. As awareness of the site increased, more students returned as readers, contributors, or both.

Owning our history

Columbia is often called a school without spirit or much tradition of which to speak. But WikiCU may just be evidence that this isn’t true—rather, that “school spirit” manifests in a unique, nontraditional way.

“When I came to Columbia, I had heard about how there was no community, there was no school spirit,” Augustine-Obi says. “And to see all these traditions … in one place that is not an admissions office pamphlet is sort of a way of saying that there actually is a culture here. And I found that reassuring, in that respect.”

“We want every student to articulate what their Columbia experience was like and what was important to them.”

—Jared Odessky, Columbia College graduate of 2015

Even today, despite extended periods of inactivity, its quintessentially Columbian tone remains one of its main draws. Reading it, one gets a sense of its dry humor. “There’s even a few jokes about old deans that always made me laugh. We never seem to grow out of poking fun at the administration,“ Aarons remarks wryly.

In many ways, WikiCU constructs a parallel social history to Columbia’s official one. Pick any article on a contested topic, visit its “View History” page, and a quick scan of the changes made will give you an idea of how campus culture has been altered (or doctored) over the years.

“You should look through the edits history of the Beta article on WikiCU, it’s funny how it changed. … A lot of language is cleaned up,” Stone laughs.

There are, of course, disadvantages to each student only being able to document the four short years they remain on campus. Information they put up is limited to the narrow perspective they possess and the events they’ve experienced. But, as Odessky posits, that may just be the source of the site’s strength.

“Part of the mission of Wikithons was to move past what was just recorded in time as these specific traditions. We want every student to articulate what their Columbia experience was like and what was important to them,” he claims.

Odessky continues: “The school is always going to have an official record of what happens in history, and what it wants to project, and I think having a student-driven record was important.”

And what a record it has become. The informative articles and narrative accounts are unembellished, pithy, and often colored with personal emotions and individual reactions that lend an immediacy to what we now see as University history.

As a student resource, the narrative power of WikiCU is unparalleled. Unlike campus newspapers, which primarily focus on producing timely content on a day-to-day basis, WikiCU is a composite of campus-wide incidents over the years, drawing information from Bwog, Spectator, and more. Odessky compares it to an encyclopedia, a “narrative history of how things unfolded.”

“When I came to Columbia, I had heard about how there was no community, there was no school spirit. And to see all these traditions … in one place that is not an admissions office pamphlet is sort of a way of saying that there actually is a culture here.”

—Sean Augustine-Obi, Columbia College graduate of 2016

Panjwani points out that WikiCU can also help one easily identify the causes that have traditionally unified students. He raises the Sexual Misconduct Policy article as an example. “It was stunning to see history repeat itself that way … and it really opens your eyes to see that sometimes,” he says. Traditional campus media reports on the here and now, not attempting to string things together in the same way that WikiCU is a composite of news over the years.

Patterns in history

Panjwani asks me, at the end of our interview, if people still use WikiCU 10 years later. I tell him that it’s still very much a source for University history, but now, it’s more of a handy go-to for quick snippets of information on Bacchanal and other campus traditions, instead of the “required reading” that characterized the prefrosh experience in the past.

“That’s funny,” he laughs, “how people think we’re the most reliable source on the Primal Scream, or something.”

But established and reliable as it may be, the information feels oddly dated, despite having only appeared a mere 10 years ago in a 262-year long University history.

Much of this is reflected in a lack of simple housekeeping. At the time of WikiCU’s conception, apparently, people used to take the elevator to JJ’s Place (“most John Jay residents don’t know of the [stairs] existence”). And, funnily enough, the WikiCU article for Wikithon 2015 states that it “hasn’t happened yet.” The entry for The Eye still describes us as an “arts and culture magazine.” And despite the early success of the Wikithon events, only 45 people attended the fourth Wikithon, held on April 28, 2016, according to the Facebook event. The past month has averaged two to three active users in a campus community of over 30,000 enrolled students.

When I try to set up a user account to edit the page, no administrators approve the account creation, suggesting that its current administrators—if any—are no longer active as well.

And so, while the site documents the intricacies of some of Columbia’s history, it is very much a pre-2016 Columbia.

“I won’t be surprised if in four years, some enterprising students think, “You know, we really want to add to this.”

—Daniel Stone, Columbia College graduate of 2016

Many major campus happenings that, in previous circumstances, would’ve undoubtedly made it into the annals of WikiCU fame, have fallen through the cracks. For instance, professor Emlyn HughesFrontiers of Science stunts in 2013 were meticulously recorded and affectionately dubbed “Froscanity” by the WikiCU article on Hughes, yet the recent recurrence in 2016 went unmentioned.

“I think its day has sort of passed. I think the HTTPS certificate isn’t even good anymore,” Skelding says. As of January 29, 2015, the site’s SSL certificate expired.

Porter is one of the only remaining links to WikiCU on campus. In her sophomore year, she organized Wikithon 2015 as the CCSC VP for communications.

When I ask her on what happened to the Wikithons, Porter admits that she’s unsure of its legacy after handing them over to the next Communications Committee.

The inevitable rotating door of students in charge of WikiCU are, to some extent, the reason for its cyclical rise and fall in use.

Mostly, the assortment of editors and contributors I spoke to seem hopeful for its eventual revival. Skelding believes that the push to preserve institutional memory will make a comeback in one way or another. “Somebody will think of a new way of doing a similar project. You can’t keep doing things the same way they’re always being done in the past,” he says.

“I won’t be surprised if in four years, some enterprising students think, “You know, we really want to add to this’,” Stone says.

“As long as the site remains up, I like to think that we’re really not losing anything,” Aarons says. “In all honesty, if somebody gave it a solid five hours of work, you could probably upgrade the site, make everything work, and make sure it’s fast again for the next generation of people to edit it.”

But perhaps the most compelling argument for the website’s continued longevity is Odessky’s. When I ask him why he, personally, put his time into contributing to WikiCU, he replies: “Because I used it. Because I found value in it. Four years can seem like a short time when lots of things happen, and for me it was important to contribute to a history that I relied on.”

This critical reliance on a crowdsourced institutional memory is at the heart of WikiCU’s ebbs and flows. Its sporadic contributions are drawn—by chance, by Wikithons, or by an overwhelming passion for researching Columbia’s history—from a pool of users far more numerous and anonymous than the regular contributors.

I was one of those users when I first looked up the New York Mets over a year ago. Needless to say, for this greenhorn prefrosh, that little nugget of information was crucial in determining my subsequent attitude toward the New York sports scene—entirely uninterested—and towards Columbia—optimistic, fatalistic, and perpetually anguished.

And just how many pages have similarly shaped Columbia students past and present and will continue to shape generations to come? Perhaps fewer, if the dwindling Wikithon numbers are anything to go by. Yet as its history has proved time and again, this is a website that defies all odds.

WikiCU’s current decline is hardly definitive. In fact, it might just be a matter of the right student coming along at the right time, and finding the right people to collaborate with.

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